ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — For a Pittsburgh Pirates fan born in the 1990s, childhood was an endless string of losing seasons. David Bednar, a Pittsburgh kid who grew up to be the team’s closer, never rooted for a winner until his freshman year at Lafayette College, in 2013. That was when Andrew McCutchen reversed decades of despair.
“It’s such a big sports town, and what he did for baseball and the city of Pittsburgh, he really brought it up,” Bednar said here, by his locker before a game against the Tampa Bay Rays. “Now he’s back — and it’s so cool.”
McCutchen, 36, won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award in that charmed 2013 season, which crested with a victory over Cincinnati in the wild-card game. The ballpark glowed by the Allegheny River. The fans wore black, like the players. The stands pulsed so wildly that a Reds pitcher dropped the ball, right there on the mound, too rattled to even make a pitch.
McCutchen hoped it would last forever. He had signed a long-term contract and bought a home in the suburbs. He would carry the Pirates to two more wild-card games and win baseball’s community service award, named for Roberto Clemente, the sainted Pirates outfielder. McCutchen was a worthy heir, on and off the field — and then he was gone.
Before the 2018 season, the frugal Pirates traded McCutchen, their highest-paid player, to San Francisco, sending him on an open-ended journey like so many others in midcareer: the Giants, the Yankees, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Milwaukee Brewers.
McCutchen never wanted that future for himself. He tried not to look back at the team he once led.
“I couldn’t really follow them, just because of where I was mentally at the time, almost, in a sense, being forced to go somewhere that you didn’t ask for,” said McCutchen, who kept the home and has raised his family there. “I didn’t ask to be traded; there was never a time when I said I wanted to be. So for that to happen in the capacity that it did, it was really hard, honestly, to pay attention to whatever the Pirates were doing.”
Mostly they were losing, tumbling right back to where McCutchen found them as a rookie in 2009: irrelevance. In the five years McCutchen was gone, the Pirates lost 121 more games than they won, always ending last or next-to-last in the N.L. Central.
Last season, the Pirates went 62-100. But they signed their third baseman, Ke’Bryan Hayes, to an eight-year, $70 million contract extension. They saw promise from other young players — pitchers Roansy Contreras and Mitch Keller, shortstop Oneil Cruz, outfielder Jack Suwinski. They knew they had a superstar in Bryan Reynolds, a switch-hitting outfielder they had gotten in exchange for McCutchen.
“There was a lot of belief in this team,” said Steve Sanders, the team’s assistant general manager, “a lot of belief that we were better than our record showed.”
To signal an organizational shift from building to winning, the Pirates sought stabilizers: Ji-Man Choi, Austin Hedges and Carlos Santana for the lineup, Rich Hill, Vince Velasquez and Jarlín García for the pitching staff. There was little risk in those signings (about $27 million combined, all on one-year deals), but the capper was McCutchen, who texted the owner, Bob Nutting, of his interest in returning. They worked out a one-year, $5 million deal.
“In this book that I’ve been writing in my head, I was always wanting to go back to Pittsburgh,” said McCutchen, who had six homers and an .804 on-base plus slugging percentage through Thursday. “Even the times that I was gone, I was hoping to get that opportunity to get there — and not only get back, but flourish and have the team do well. Being able to turn it around once again, that meant a lot to me.”
Nostalgia was thick at the home opener in Pittsburgh: McCutchen’s mother, Petrina, sang the national anthem, and A.J. Burnett threw a ceremonial first pitch to Russell Martin, reprising a battery from the 2013 playoff team. McCutchen batted third and went 5 for 9 with a homer in the first home series.
“Our thought process from the beginning was this isn’t a farewell tour,” said fourth-year Manager Derek Shelton, who signed a contract extension in April. “This is a guy that’s still a really good player and still moves really well. I mean, you watch him run the bases. He’s played more D.H. recently, because Choi has been hurt, but when he played the outfield earlier in the year, he was playing it very well.”
Shelton continued: “The biggest thing, especially with him and Santana, was the quality of the at-bat. We needed professional hitters to lengthen our lineup. So now we have guys that hit the middle of our order and we’re not hitting the kids there.”
The Pirates had a .291 on-base percentage last season, ranking 28th in the majors. This year, through Thursday, their .335 O.B.P. was tied for seventh. They also led the majors in stolen bases with 44, nearly half of their total from 2022. The staff’s earned run average, 3.60, was tied for eighth in the majors; last season it ranked 26th, at 4.66.
It has added up to the Pirates’ best start in a generation: the team won 20 of its first 30 games for the first time since 1992, when Barry Bonds was the headliner. Now it is Reynolds, who signed the first nine-figure contract in club history with an eight-year, $106.75 million extension in April.
“I believe in my teammates and the staff and what we’re building here,” Reynolds said. “We’ve got a lot of good, young, dynamic players and the staff really cares. I like the players, I like the city.”
Through Thursday, Reynolds had a .935 O.P.S. with five homers and ranked fourth in the N.L. in total bases. Even after being swept in three games by the Rays, the Pirates held first place in the N.L. Central at 20-12.
“Everybody would be lying if they said they saw this, specifically, happening — but everybody in here knew that we were good,” Reynolds said. “Granted, there’s still a lot of season left, but it’s not necessarily a huge surprise to us — a welcome surprise, if you will.”
Before Wednesday’s game — the second of three here — McCutchen said the Rays series would be something of a test for the Pirates (“We get to really see where we are as a team,” he said). With just four runs in the series, the results were disappointing.
But some of the Pirates’ distinctive traits — sound at-bats, aggressive base running — should be relatively slump-proof, and McCutchen said the team’s best quality was understanding and taking pride in its strengths.
“We don’t play the game old,” he said. “We play it new, we play it fun and we play it fast. And I think that’s been very beneficial for us.”
New, fun and fast. That is a fitting slogan from a player who knows the Pirates, past and present, as no one else can.